In an actor’s training, the principles of comedy are seldom given their deserved attention. One reason is that comedy, unlike drama, demands a much more disciplined, stylized, precise performance, and the resulting complexities make it both difficult to fully comprehend, to perform, and likewise, to teach. This chapter cannot cover all the complex elements of comedy, but it will attempt to simplify them and make them understandable. My goal here will be to give you a foothold on the basic comedy techniques, their terminology’s, the tools and skills one needs, along with the principles that govern comedy performances.
How does comedy work? How does one dissect humor and explain this phenomenon called laughter?
My approach, presented through out these articles, is to analyze what is happening in the mind of the audience. To look more at the changes occurring in the audience and the reasons behind them. And through this study, we come to realize that the audience, as a group, behaves in a way governed by certain physiological and psychological principles. Because once the actors understand what’s happening out there in the audience, they can create, adjust, or change the presentation so that the style, look, and perspective is consistent with the story elements and its purpose. And by doing so, the acting ensemble can achieve the desired results whether it is drama or comedy.
Many look on comedy as soliciting laughter, but comedy is the medium through which the character, the situations, and the story come to life in a world of humor. It’s still storytelling and it still has a purpose, a premise, presenting arguments and revealing truth. But it’s done in a specific style, with lighter touches, broader strokes, and yet, like drama, somehow reflecting the times and speaking to our lives.
One of the key considerations with respect to the audience is to establish early on the style of the performance. Some bit of business, behavior, or dialogue must reveal that what follows will be comedy. Something indicating we are going to have fun and that the level of reality is going to be distorted, unbalanced, and stretched a little (or a lot).
Even when doing a scene extracted from a comedy play or screenplay, it’s best to establish the genre at the opening of the scene. By doing so, you place the audience in the proper perspective and give them permission to laugh. This is best done with behavior, attitude, or some other non-verbal communication, as this will convey the genre more convincingly and quickly than would dialogue. This initial bit is often called the grabber because it pulls the audience into the celebration and sets the tone for comedy. And as the story unfolds, these initial moments help establish the plausibility for the outlandish situation that follows.
In first reading and analyzing a comedy play or scene, one is likely to focus mainly on the humorous payoffs, the punch lines, or jokes, and thereby base their interpretation solely on playing for the laughs. In doing so, the story elements suffer and weakens the purpose or premise of the play. The performance becomes a series of comedy sketches with little holding them together.
Comedy, at its best, comes out of the dramatic truth of the situation. A character has an obstacle to overcome, a connection to make, or a need to be satisfied. And when that’s expressed, clearly, emphatically with conviction, the audience laughter becomes a kind of celebration.
It now becomes more than jokes. There is a solid sense of reality, even in the most outrageous situations. The audience cares about the characters because they believe the character’s needs and feelings are real. It may seem silly, but its serious silliness, for the audience is now involved in the story and the dilemmas of the characters.
What we sometimes forget is that in every humorous interaction, there are three essential components. First is the humorous material itself, the story and its characters, the funny ideas, the hilarious situations, or the jokes. The second is the medium through which it is conveyed be it a book that is read, actors performing a play, or someone telling or retelling a joke. The third component is the audience, the people to which the humorous material is conveyed via one of the various mediums.
Each of these components is inter-related by basic principles that make comedy work. Humor depends on some shared context, a shared familiarity with social rules, customs of society, nuances of its language and behavior.
Therefore, the comic material must be relevant to the audience or, somehow, the audience must be knowledgeable about the subject matter. In like manner, the comic material must be conveyed clearly to the audience and understood as humor to be funny. The actor/character, who conveys this material, likewise, must be perceived with shared familiarity to create a common ground plus a sense of reality.
The success of humor will depend on how well these three components connect.
When one or two of these components are missing, comedy is not possible. Consider what would happen if a joke fell in an empty theatre. Would there still be laughter? No. Comedy becomes possible when relevant comic material is clearly conveyed to a receptive audience by familiar, identifiable characters.
So now, we have a general idea about the components that have to be in place to make comedy work. Next, let’s look into the specifics as to how comedy is constructed. The major enjoyment in this genre, of course, is the laughter that comes as a result of the situations, the punch lines or payoffs. However, to make these surprises work, the audience has to be led into the trap.
This means luring the audience into a proper state of mind that sets up the joke. The level of comic reality has to be established and the event identified as something that could actually happen. And within the context of the story, the characters and the situations must appear to be logical and acceptable.
Most comic situations revolve around solving a problem, answering a question. For example, how does the character get out of a certain dilemma? As the audience is fed the essential information; i.e., the needs, wants, emotions, obstacles, and other relevant data, the groundwork is laid which later supports the joke and the punch line. The setup may also misdirect the audience, create uncertainties, or encourage belief in the seemingly inevitable conclusion to the dilemma.
Recognizing the elements in the setup that make the joke work is a vital part of interpreting a scene. Without this information, the actor may be unable to shape and emphasize the right elements to maximize the humor.
The classic joke involving Jack Benny’s character is a perfect example. When the robber points the gun at Benny and demands, “Your money or your life?” the element that makes the punch line work is the fact that Benny’s character is an obsessed penny-pinching miser. Without this fact ingrained in the mind of the audience, Benny’s long-delayed response and punch line, “I’m thinking it over!” doesn’t make sense.
Another example is Henny Youngman’s four-word classic: “Take my wife, please!” If you were unaware that much of Henny’s comic anger is about the confinement of marriage, this joke would have little impact. But when this fact is set up earlier in his routine, with this resentment showing, the joke works beautifully.
These two examples bring up a good point. Humorous bits, especially in television situation comedies, are difficult to duplicate fully because they are so indigenous to the character and the set of circumstances. They would not have the same impact when reproduced in part by others. Therefore, it’s important to analyze everything that leads up to each humorous incident. That would include character development and relationships from earlier scenes and even earlier episodes.
Let’s examine the construction of comic gags or jokes and the terminology used to describe their individual sections. Note that jokes are not just situations. It’s the character in the situation. Many jokes are a relationship between two opposing ideas or points of view that are expressed in a way that saves the surprise for last.
It’s difficult to say where each joke begins because many of the qualities that make the joke work begin as the curtain goes up or as the story fades in. This preparatory section we call the pre-setup and the qualities mainly informational. They consist of character’s characteristics, attitudes, relationships, setting, along with the comic tone or the freedom and atmosphere to appreciate the humor.
Next is the setup, the actual beginning of the gag or joke. This is the happy idea or happy notion along with the vital information directly supporting the joke. It sets up the situation, the argument, the problem, and/or the premise and clarifies the objective/emotion/obstacle polarizations of the character(s). It also defines the subject of attack and the plan of assault. I use the terms attack and assault here because most of comedy is blasphemous, insulting, or anti-something. Anyone or anything can be attacked.
Sometimes there is a specific fact or vital bit of information that heightens the audience expectations and the impact of the punch line. This information we call the plant. The plant is the cause while the gag becomes the result or effect. It’s usually the item that sets the gag rolling toward the surprise ending. The plant should be spaced no more than 100 seconds before the payoff. Otherwise, any more time and the connection to the plant is unlikely.
Following the setup, is the build. In this section, the joke is further developed with complications, embellishments, or variations. Tension increases; expectations heighten as the audience senses a solution to the pending question.
All that has gone before now climaxes with a surprise ending. This is the derailment of thought, the payoff, the explosion of the punch line. It’s the resolution or fulfillment that goes beyond the expectations of the audience.
This is followed by the audience’s response, the after-effect.
The laughter, the warm glow, or savoring the fun in knowing they’ve been surprised or had. Laughter is most often produced by a fall from dignity — by other people. And that fall or drop can result in an audience reaction ranging from a silent warm glow to a buffo where the audience lets loose with contagious laughter, feeding on itself. In between, you can have the chuckle, the audience seeing the irony, the titters, the belly laughs coming from deep inside, or the howling guffaw.
Each of these after-affects has its place in the realm of comedy. However, sometimes a big laugh or the wrong type of laugh can hurt a scene by making it peak before the ultimate “big joke”. One can control the laugh response with tempo, timing, emphasis, and/or reaction so the scene is properly shaped and the humor properly projected.
A topper is a short joke/punch line relating to the previous joke, but tops it in humor and response. The actor’s timing, emphasis, and/or reactions set this up so the audience can roll to a higher level of laughter. The saver is a line or behavior used to bump up a weak after-affect, or a joke that’s bombed. Savers are found most in stand-up comedy as ad-libs, but they are also effective in stage and audience attended TV productions to help keep the laughter on a roll.
So a joke or gag, with all the sections in place, might look something like this:
- Payoff or Punch Line
- Topper or Saver
The plant could appear either in the setup or in the build, but as mentioned before, it should be positioned no more than 100 seconds before the punch line. You will note that in comedy, there is a stylized order to the presentation. Comic information builds upon itself. What goes before relates to what follows. And if one item is left out or placed in the wrong position, the humor is weakened.
This article provides the basic principles, which govern comedy performances. The subsequent article on implementing humor will cover the tools and skills in telling a humorous story.